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Less Than Superman, More Than Everyman

Recently, Woods's father has had cause to worry that he and his son's mutual quest -- for Tiger to be the greatest golfer who ever lived -- might be seriously off track. Now, after 34 barren months, at least by Woods family standards, the son has provided the answer. There will be more majors, and the lifetime project will continue.

After this triumph, Woods is exactly halfway to the peak of Mount Nicklaus with his 18 such titles. The rest of that exhilarating climb, which will presumably take many years, will almost certainly find more fans pulling for Woods passionately and personally, rather than marveling primarily at his talent, intelligence and tenacity.

Woods's expressions over these long days, as well as the power of the diabolical game to trouble him deeply, make him a compelling protagonist, not just a polished, self-protective prodigy guarded by an impenetrable entourage.

Of course, another player once underwent a somewhat similar shift in public perception long ago -- Nicklaus himself.

Of Fat Jack's early, Bunyanesque victories, Bobby Jones said, "Nicklaus plays a game with which I am not familiar." But with age, as well as the distractions of business and five children, plus the arrival of fresh challengers, the expressions in Nicklaus's face also became more familiar to us. Call them golf character lines. Woods is starting to show them now.

That's why Woods's most sublime moments shine more brightly. They no longer feel like inevitabilities of youth and talent, but like victories extracted at great cost under fiendish pressure. Doubt, not much to be sure but just an iota, is now a 15th club in Woods's bag. In its way, that vulnerability makes his greatest moments, such as a record-tying seven straight birdies in a third-round 65 and his chip-in on the 70th hole that saved this title, even more delicious to behold.

Before, we watched Woods. Now, perhaps, we begin to share. And from this day the shared moment that will last is clear.

Ben Hogan is immortalized by his 1-iron shot at Merion Golf Club to win the 1950 U.S. Open. The perfect ball-striker stands in ideal balance, holding his finish as the ball streaks toward the stick. Nicklaus is epitomized by his birdie putt on the 17th hole to win his sixth Masters at age 46 in 1986. His face looks more like a wolf than a bear as his eyes devour the hole just before his ball falls into it, his ferocious willpower victorious again.

Now Woods, until he does something more preposterous for even higher stakes, has his comparable moment. Woods led by one shot at the 16th hole, but faced a brutal chip shot with his ball flush against the three-inch high second cut of rough. Woods studied every possibility and combed his voluminous knowledge of golf history.

Suddenly, he remembered a miraculous chip-in from a similar angle, but a much easier lie, by Davis Love III several years ago. Love aimed far left of the hole, got his chip shot to check on a ridge in the green, then got the ball to pause at precisely the perfect point and turn 90 degrees to the right, funneling itself slowly down a steep incline toward the hole. From Woods's lie, few would even attempt it. Stub it, skull it, fluff it, take your pick. But get the ball to stop in the perfect spot, then roll 25 feet sideways toward the hole?

Only Tiger. At his best. For his father. In the Masters. After a 34-month drought in the majors during which he and his new coach, Hank Haney, "were getting ripped for my swing changes." Not much pressure after 26 holes Saturday and 28 more Sunday.

"If Chris makes birdie [from 15 feet] and I make bogey, I'm one back," Woods said. "I was just trying to throw the ball up there on the hill and let it feed down there and hopefully have a makable putt. All of a sudden, it looked pretty good, and all of a sudden it looked like really good, and it looked like how could it not go in, and how did it not go in, and all of a sudden it went in.

"So, it was pretty sweet."

Indeed, all around and in every way, how sweet it was.

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